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17 Nov 2005
by Michael David Smith
As the clock neared midnight in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Sunday, the stands emptied as Steelers fans decided that the risk of getting caught in traffic was far greater than the risk of their defense blowing a 27-7 lead against the Cleveland Browns.
Leaving a game early is not the mark of a great fan, but the Steelers faithful were correct: This defense, one of the best in the NFL, won't be giving up any big leads to bottom-tier teams. A close analysis of every play of the Pittsburgh victory revealed a defense that disguises its fronts to confuse the offense, relentlessly pressures the opposing quarterback, and has the deepest front seven in the NFL.
It also, however, showed one serious weakness that its opponents can be expected to exploit for the rest of the season.
The Steelers play a base 3-4 defense, but they're excellent at aligning in sets that the offense isn't prepared for. Pittsburgh did just that on a second-and-14 against Cleveland. The Steelers put their nickel personnel on the field, with two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs. But after the Browns broke their huddle, Pittsburgh shifted into a 4-3, with Clark Haggans and Joey Porter â€“ usually linebackers -- at end, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith -- usually ends -- at tackle, and Troy Polamalu -- usually a safety -- at strongside linebacker. Until the last moment before the snap Polamalu stood back as if he were playing in his usual safety position, but before the snap he moved down to become the seventh player in the box as a linebacker.
At the snap Polamalu followed Trent Dilfer's play fake to Reuben Droughns and hit him at the line, slowing down Droughns' route. Dilfer then passed to tight end Steve Heiden, and Polamalu pursued and made the tackle on Heiden at the line of scrimmage. The Browns' play failed because when they called it, they thought Pittsburgh was in a nickel package that would leave plenty of room underneath for a short pass to the tight end. By the time they snapped the ball Pittsburgh was in a 4-3 with Polamalu in perfect position.
That was a crafty play by the Steelers, but it raises the question of why every other team doesn't change its fronts in the same manner. The answer is that few teams have the talent at linebacker that Pittsburgh has. Haggans and Porter can line up as defensive ends because they're strong enough to get into a three-point stance and take on an offensive tackle. On other plays they're quick enough to drop into pass coverage. Most linebackers can do one of those. Few can do both. Pittsburgh also has a very good pair of inside linebackers in Larry Foote and James Farrior, and no team has a better group of linebackers on the bench than Pittsburgh's Andre Frazier, Rian Wallace, Clint Kriewaldt and James Harrison.
The speed of the linebackers was on display when Porter, Pittsburgh's best pass rusher, sacked Dilfer in the third quarter. Porter lined up on the outside shoulder of left tackle L.J. Shelton and simply ran past him. Porter got such a quick first step that Shelton couldn't get out of his stance in time to block him.
As they showed the replay of Porter's sack, ESPN's commentators, Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann, agreed that when Pittsburgh's linebackers rush the passer, the opposing offensive tackles always need help from a running back or a tight end. But thinking about that for a second reveals that it's crazy: If on every pass play the opposing offense used a tight end or a running back to help out with each Pittsburgh outside linebacker, that would mean two of the five eligible receivers would block. That leaves three receivers, meaning Pittsburgh could double-cover all three of them while still rushing five. As much as Pittsburgh would love to see its linebackers go unblocked, it would love to see them double-teamed on every play even more.
Pittsburgh is even better against the run than it is against the pass. Nose tackle Casey Hampton has only four sacks in his career, which means he doesn't get a lot of media attention; defensive linemen who specialize against the run invariably get less credit than those who specialize at rushing the quarterback. But Hampton is very good at stopping runs, even though he doesn't often make the tackle himself.
On a Cleveland first-and-10 in the first quarter, Droughns took the handoff on an off-tackle play that appeared to call for center Jeff Faine to block inside linebacker Clint Kriewaldt. But Hampton held his ground against Faine, who was unable to do anything, which freed up space for Kriewaldt to make the tackle for no gain.
Hampton is listed at 6-foot-1 and 325 pounds, but he appears to have done what millions do at the DMV, adding the standard inch and subtracting the standard 15 pounds. As heavy as he is, though, Hampton didn't always clog the middle of the line against Cleveland. On Droughns' touchdown, Cleveland's right guard Mike Pucillo, making his first career start, did a great job blocking Hampton one-on-one, knocking him to the ground as Droughns ran by.
But that play was an aberration, and the biggest concern about Hampton isn't whether he can take on blockers, it's whether he can stay healthy. He has torn the ACL in each knee, one during his sophomore year at Texas and the other in Week 6 last season. Hampton often comes out on passing downs, when Aaron Smith, usually an end, moves to nose tackle. Hampton is a good situational run stopper, but Smith is the more complete defensive lineman for his ability to stay in on every down, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback.
Cleveland had a first-and-10 just before the two minute warning in the first half, and Smith lined up at left tackle in a 4-3 front. He did an excellent job of fighting off his blocker and grabbing Droughns as he crossed the line of scrimmage to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a long gain.
Later on that same drive, Polamalu blitzed and hit Dilfer just as he released a pass to wide receiver Dennis Northcutt, causing a wobbly throw that Porter intercepted just before halftime. Polamalu deserves credit for the hit and Porter deserves credit for the pick, but also note that both Haggans rushing on the outside and Smith rushing on the inside took up two blockers on the play, which freed Polamalu to make the hit.
Usually, the tradeoff for pressuring the quarterback successfully is that it leaves the cornerbacks and safeties vulnerable to deep passes. But as Porter demonstrated by picking off the ball intended for Northcutt, LeBeau's schemes solve that by dropping linebackers who don't rush the passer into deep coverage.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that practice leaves one problem: Pittsburgh's linebackers don't have much middle ground. They're either rushing the passer or they're dropping into deep coverage. That gives opposing running backs plenty of room to catch passes.
Cleveland exploited that on Sunday. On the first play of the second quarter, a screen to Droughns worked because the Steelers blitzed, Polamalu crashed the inside, and Droughns had plenty of room to run before free safety Chris Hope, deep in coverage, brought him down. Linebacker James Harrison made a nice play catching up to Droughns to assist on the tackle, but not until Droughns had gained 22 yards.
On a third-and-17, Droughns caught a screen and converted a first down. Pittsburgh only rushed the four down linemen on the play, but the linebackers were aligned very deep in the secondary, which gave Cleveland's offensive linemen plenty of room to get in front of Droughns and set up the blocking. With everyone else blocked, Pittsburgh needed Hope to make the play. Droughns ran him over.
Vulnerability to running backs catching passes is not a fatal flaw for a defense that does just about everything else well. But with the Peyton Manning-to-Edgerrin James threat looming next Monday night, it's something Pittsburgh needs to address.
Still, the Steelers' defense is among the league's elite. Polamalu plays all over the field, Porter might be the league's most versatile linebacker, and Smith is one of the most multitalented linemen. As much credit as Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, and the multifaceted running attack deserve, it's this defense that will make Heinz Field a place every fan wants to be in January.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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